Bicycle-Tour-2015-1

John BERRY BICYCLE TRIP 2015 Blog Instalment #1: May 16th, 2015

At the Rynek, Poznan
At the Rynek, Poznan

This year my annual tour is overshadowed by tragedy in our family. Our daughter Dana’s fiance, Robby Draper, had four children by a previous marriage. On the 22nd April, Crystal, his ex-wife, was waiting to make a left turn into their subdivision in Liberty Hill, about an hour by car from Austin. She was rear-ended by a speeding drunk driver, and two of the children were killed immediately. The third child in the back seat, Kris, is still fighting for his life in Dell Children’s Hospital in Austin, more than 3 weeks later. Cystal herself was seriously injured and in hospital for 10 days, and the fourth child, Kody, who was in the front passenger seat, was also injured but was released from hospital after a week.

Dana has been very supportive to Robby, and Robby has very bravely gone through not just the accident (he was close by when it happened and was able to get there about the same time as the EMS), but all the aftermath of long vigils in the hospital with Kris, and of making funeral arrangements. Fortunately, he had a lot of help from his own parents.

The children were all beautiful kids and, like Robby himself, polite and well-behaved. The drunk was celebrating his 45th birthday, was uninsured, had an expired drivers’ license, and a long history of drunken driving and family violence arrests. Thus there is not just the physical and emotional hurt, but Robby and all of his family and ex-family will have huge financial burdens, for which fund-raising is already underway. The drunk driver is in jail on a $2,000,000 bond.

It was only with reluctance that Ingrid and I left Austin – but Kris had improved a bit the last few days before we left, and we felt that we were not (yet) integral parts of the Draper family, and perhaps it would be better if we weren’t there asking incessant questions about Kris’ condition: we can fly home if they need us.

I left my Bike Friday in Lund at the end of last year’s trip, all cleaned and oiled and ready for this year. Again this year I took the ferry from Ystad to Swinousjcie, after having a nice dinner with Ingrid and her friends Goran and Birgitta Soderberg on the sea front at Ystad, and saying goodbye to Ingrid on the dockside. This time I took a cabin, as I had no mind to spend the overnight voyage again trying to sleep on the floor of a lounge full of drunken Polish truck drivers, some of whom were trying to incite fights.

The weather was much better this year than last, and within 1 1/2 hours of leaving the boat at Swinousjcie I was touring the Viking village at Wolin (see photograph of entrance). I had not realized last year that this village is based on the results of a series of excavations carried out in the 1930s in the center of ancient Wolin – or Jomsborg to the Vikings – which was a major political and economic center from the 7th to the 11th centuries, and the home town of the grandfather of famous King Canute, ruler of Denmark, England and Norway.

I had not had time to warn my friends from last year, Jask, Hania, Grzegorz and Beata of my impending arrival at their summer home in Zagorze, so I by-passed it and carried on to Goleniow, by which time I had done 51 miles and was completely shattered, having not had time to ride even 1 mile on the bicycle for practice before leaving Austin. I was booked into a municipal hostel (very nice, but lots of steps up which to carry the bicycle and my belongings), and had eaten a huge Polish lunch of sausage and Bean Soup and seven heavy pirogis and sauerkraut by 2.30 pm, but it took me the next 4 hours to stop trembling and stop the excruciating pain in my back and right hip enough to shower and dress properly. Unfortunately, when I started to walk to town to look for a snack at 7.00 pm the pain started immediately. The short walk was excruciating and slow. Carrying awkward loads for any distance will do that to me. West of Stargard I passed two IKEA factories, presumably making wooden furniture from the abundant timber harvest in the area.

However, a good night’s sleep works wonders, and after answering e-mail and having breakfast at the same municipal restaurant, next door to the hostel, at which I had eaten lunch ($4.00 for lunch, $5.00 for breakfast) I was off again to Stargard Sczeczinski, a short 25 miles ride into a cold, stiff headwind.

The Tourist Information officer at Stargard had spent 20 years in Sydney, Auistralia, and had returned to Stargard 4 years ago to care for his ailing mother. He was bored and enjoyed answering my questions. He also escorted me to the nearby inexpensive hotel, in the only non-religious building within the city walls that survived World War II – a Victorian Palladian Revival structure overhanging the canal that passes through the town. My room was microscopic but good.

Stargard was an important trading town from the 8th century AD to the 17th Century, when it was ravaged during the 30 Years War: after being occupied by troops of the Holy Roman Empire and forced to pay huge taxes, it was then taken after a fierce battle by the Swedish army of King Gustav II Adolf. This disaster was followed within a few years by terrible fires and the bubonic plague, which decimated the town. However, by the mid-nineteenth century its fortunes revived as it became a major railroad center and manufacturing town. Long stretches of the medieval walls remain, although the moat has been filled-in to make a shady park. Along the walls are a half dozen large defensive towers, each one different and unique. The medieval brick St. Mary’s church is one of the largest “Backstein Gothik” (Red-brick Gothic) churches in Europe, with its soaring nave and transepts and glorious painted ceilings (see photograph). However, there is no stained glass, and many of the chapels in the apse are bare, all because of a fire in the seventeenth century. St. John’s Church has one of the tallest spires in Poland and is also beautiful inside, but I could only catch a glimpse as I arrived in the middle of a big wedding. The beautiful young bride and the groom were at the altar and the priest was pronouncing the wedding vows. The church was thronged with people in their very best clothes, the ladies with pretty hats: all I could do was snatch a poor photograph through the gap between the panels of the glass door to the sanctuary.

I had a beautiful dinner of a fresh, whole baked trout with french fried potatoes and grated raw cabbage and carrot. The trout was lightly sprinkled with paprika and garnished with chopped parsley and a little choppd basil – wonderful after my first Polish meal of sausage soup and heavy pierogi at the municipal restaurant in Goleniow!

The next day was Sunday – a cold, windy, Sunday. At the second village I came to, which rejoiced in the name of Witkowo II, people were arriving for Mass, so I joined in. I couldn’t understand a word of the mostly sung proceedings, but it was clear from the beautiful white bridal dresses the little girls were wearing, and the suits of the little boys, that this was First Communion Sunday in Poland – which explained why all the restaurants in Stargard had been full of what seemed to be wedding parties. It’s also clear that the children are confirmed at a somewhat earlier age than I am used to.

I was now riding through the classic Ice Age terminal moraine area of the Pomeranian Plain: stream courses make no sense as they had been blocked by the glacial ice, and there are many lakes and boggy areas, Smaller ponds in steep-sided depressions are what we knew in East Anglia as “kettle holes” – depressions left behind where large lumps of “dead ice”, entombed in the moraines, had melted out. They are larger than the East Anglian ones, and made for pretty village sites on the banks. The soil ranges from boulder clay with erratics of Scandinavian rocks, now piled in the corners of fields or used for the foundations of buildings, to wide areas of sandy soil covered now with beech-pine forests or with gorgeous, blindingly yellow-flowering rape. Between the rape and the scent of the many lilac trees, the whole countryside smelled beautiful.

At Bierzwinik I stopped at the ruins of a Cistercian Monastery, now partly restored and used as the parish church. Everything was locked, but through a window pane I could see a typical cloister. A path led off around a pretty pond, and there were some abandoned-looking archaeological pits. The little village was obviously benefiting from its picturesque ruin, as there were a couple of “ateliers” and gift shops.

After passing 10 miles through a dark and gloomy forest, and ouching my way along 3 km of rough cobblestones, I stopped for the night in a pleasant hotel at Drezdenko, on the Notec river: this was the first town I had come to that had not been nearly destroyed in the war. It preserved its square and its winding medieval streets.

On Monday morning I struggled against a headwind across 18 more miles of dense forest to Miendzychod, on the Warta River. All along this stretch were signs of the oil industry, including a large gas-processing plant and a very large well being drilled by a company called Exalo. I had not realised that there was sufficient depth in the Pomeranian Basin to justify such a large rig, although I was aware that there had been a couple of failed attempts in the last year or so to frac the Cambrian Alum Shale – a famously oil- and uranium-rich rock that outcrops on the south coast of Sweden.

The Warta River runs east-to-west along the southern boundary of Pomerania for a couple of hundred miles to join the Oder – presumably created by the glacial damming of previously north-flowing streams. I would be following it, more or less, from Miendzchod to Poznan. After crossing it at Miendzychod one turns east through a beautiful park to enter the medieval town, whose streets are lined with sixteenth to eighteenth century buildings. The old center seemed a bit run-down, but the outer areas were prosperous.

Then it was a short ride to Sierakow – a really pretty town with a big square and a baroque church with a series of memorials outside to Poland’s war dead, including one to Free Polish soldiers who fought at the Battle of Monte Cassino – this I photographed. Col. L.A.S. Harborne, a colorful friend of my parents who was known to us kids as “Handlebars” because of his extraordinary flaming ginger moustache, was promoted from the ranks at Monte Cassino when all the officers of his unit were killed. He sometimes spoke of the Polish troops there. There is a well-known glassworks in Sierakow (Warta glass).

Quick lunch, then the long haul of over 40 km to SzamotuLy (I am using “L” to represent the Polish “el-with-a-slash-through-it”, which is pronounced “w”), through country that was now less forest and much more agricultural – about half rapeseed and half winter wheat, with many piggeries. SzamutuLy is entered past a pretty park with a chateau and defensive tower surrounded by a moat, in which fountains play. A medieval cobblestone street leads to a square (Rynek) so large that there is a complete block of buildings within it, surrounded by a vast cobblestoned space (photos). Enquiries produced the information that there was a hotel Marathon in town, and finally a young man on a bicycle led me here.

It now seems a long time since I wrote this – I am in Lithuania. I will have to attach photographs as a separate message. more frequent brief updates are on my Facebook account.